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Apocalypse: A Tucson woman takes the urban survival test

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Photo: Video by kgun9.com

Apocalypse: A Tucson woman takes the urban survival test

By Valerie Cavazos. CREATED Nov 26, 2013

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - It's our nation's biggest threat -- a cyberattack. It can shut down the electric grid throughout an entire region like the Southwest and create harrowing conditions in less than a week.

Would you be ready? Disaster experts say most Americans are not prepared beyond 2 or 3 days. KGUN9 partnered with World Care, a Tucson organization that deals with disasters, and put one woman to the urban survival test.

Day 1: When we showed up at Sue Nesper's home, she had no idea what she volunteered to do. "48 hours without electricity. No power at all. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. What a challenge. Holy cow," said Nesper.

Trained in urban survival, World care founder Lisa Hopper took sue off the grid. Lisa headed to Sue's power panels and shut down her circuit breakers.  "OK, You're off."

And survival mode kicked in. Sue had never given this catastrophic scenario a single thought, so she wasn't prepared for the first 24 hours.
     
Her food supply -- now limited. Lisa went through her refrigerator and freezer. "You have a lot of stuff in here. You have milk. You have dairy products," she said. All perishables that spoil in less than 24 hours.

KGUN9 reporter Valerie Cavazos asked Sue how she was going to keep her food cold. "I could put my food in an ice chest. And fill it up with my ice." Cavazos asked her, "How long would that last?" She answered, "I have no idea."

Her cupboards containing canned and boxed foods were nearly bare. Cavazos asked her, "Do you think you can get through 2 days with what you have in there?" She answered, "Yes."

Although off the grid, water still flowed from the faucets.
Cavazos: "Now you have water running right now. Do you know if it's going to last?"
Sue: "I have no idea?"
Cavazos: "So what are you going to do? I'm going to start bottling."

Lisa suggested filling the tub. It can hold 55 gallons of water. "Bathtubs hold about that much. Your sink will hold a couple of gallons," she said.

Sue, like most urbanites, relies on technology for information and communication, but without electricity or backup power supplies, computers, TVs, smartphones, can be rendered useless in 24 hours. Cavazos asked Sue to check how much power she had on her smartphone. "69 percent," she said.
Cavazos: "Okay how long does that usually last?"
Sue: "Probably through tomorrow morning."

And outside her home without generator backup grocery stores and banks shut down within 24 hours. "I can't use an ATM. Do you have money with you? I have maybe 25 dollars."

 And if she left the home, she couldn't get too far. In Arizona, generators are not required at gas stations. Pumps would not work and even though Sue had a full tank, she would face this: "The entire state is out and you'll have gridlock everywhere," said Lisa.

Night approached. Sue's routine -- shattered.

Cavazos: "Do you feel at all prepared for this?"
Sue: "No. I'm going to survive minute to minute. I have no idea. That's all I'm thinking about. How am I going to get through this."

Major resources that stop working in the first 24 hours include:
Electronics
Security Systems

Day 2: 24 hours into the challenge.

Sue had filled her bathtub with water, but in the morning faced a major glitch. "55 gallons right down the drain. I filled this last night and it's gone," she said.
Cavazos: "So what are you going to do? Fill it again?"
Sue: "Yeah."
Cavazos: "You've got to figure out how to plug that."
Sue: "Yeah."

But she didn't get the chance.

Lisa told Sue, "Today we have the second level of the challenge. We have to shut off the water."
Sue: "Oh gosh."

Lisa turned off her main water system. "You're shut off now."
Sue: "I should have known that the water pumps use electricity that I would lose water. And I didn't."

Sue realized she only had a few containers of water left. A look of panic -- on her face. Cavazos asked, "What are you thinking Sue?"
Sue: "It's going to be dreadful because I drink a lot of water."

After 24 hours, Waste Management systems don't work. Sue's toilets no longer flush. "Thank god I had enough toilet paper. It's a funny thing. But holy cow!" she said.

Sue spend some of the day thinking about how other people would have reacted.  "I'm by myself. I don't have children. I don't have older parents. But what about parents who have young children. If they ran out of diapers -- or formula -- or milk. Just basic supplies. What would they have done?"

Sue had shut down her smartphone at time throughout the day to conserve powver. Cavazos asked, "Do you feel disconnected to the world?"
Sue: "Yes I do. I absolutely do. I feel alone. I feel real alone. And I'm really surprised because I've been alone. This is hard core."

Sue said she tried to stay focused. "Anticipate what's going to happen next. And I haven't." 
Cavazos: "Why why do you think that's the case?"
Sue: "Because I'm distracted."
Cavazos: "What's distracting you?"
Sue: "I don't have electricity."
Cavazos: "It keeps coming back to that."
Sue: "Yes."

48 hours later: The urban survival challenge came to end. Sue reached her breaking point.

The food filling Sue's ice chest had to be tossed into the trash. All that's left -- canned and boxed food and a few gallons of water. "My food supply is zilch. Everything that I put in my cooler is spoiled. That's what I was kind of counting on. I thought I would be good until last night but I wasn't. All the food in my cooler is spoiled," she said.

Sue lasted -- 48 hours -- barely.
Cavazos: "Are you at your limit right now?"
Sue: "Yes I am. I'm ready to go back on the grid."

Sue said she lived minute by minute. She never ventured out of her home. "I don't want to leave my house. I think it would just be chaotic. I haven't driving my vehicle. I don't know if I want to go out to see what's going on. "
Cavazos: "Is this out of character for you?"
Sue: "Absolutely."
Cavazos: "Is that what scares you the most?"
Sue: "Yeah. I'm not a scardy cat. I've always been big and brave. Always thought I was big and brave. But not so much now."

Lisa said the first couple of days people would stay in their homes. "And there's psychology. The more resources depleted the more people are going to get agitated. And become fearful they are not going to have things. The're going to go out and stress the system.They're going to try to find food, water, transportation."

Cavazos asked Sue: "Can you see how people all of sudden become hostile?"
Sue: Absolutely. It could turn into chaos. It could turn into chaos. I'm trying to stay calm. My heart is racing. My stomach all day has been clinching. I don't know what's going to happen."

Sue never reached the catastrophic level - when all hell breaks loose.

72 Hours:  "Things are really going to hit the skids in 72 hours," said Lisa.

Lisa said after 72 hours if there is no more gasoline for the generators on the critical infustructure that was being used to back it up. Major infustructures, fire, police, hospitals, security systems, and transportation, begin to shut down.

And when a city completely stops functioning -- looting, vandalism and violence spreads. "You have your good, your bad and the ugly. And people who don't have resources stacked up. Those are going to collapse the fastest."

Disaster experts say Americans underestimate what it takes to survive. "Because just through this basic process that we just went through that represents a lot of people in our society. We're not prepared and we're not prepared to recover what we need to recover."

And this new threat, a cyberattack, is knocking on every community's door. "It's not if, it's when," said Lisa.

How is the city preparing? For the past year, the Office of Emergency Management, FEMA and Homeland Security have been working with city officials and non-profit organizations, like World Care.

They've conducted exercises to find problem areas and come up with strategic plans to strengthen the city's ability to support the community. But Lisa said everyone needs to have a plan in place to make it all work.